Abductive reasoning, also known as “inference to the best explanation” is a form of logical reasoning that looks to the most likely hypothesis to explain something.
While you may not be aware of it, people use abductive reasoning all the time to make educated guesses or form hypotheses on why a certain thing or event took place.
The grass is wet (the observation), therefore, It probably rained last night (the most likely hypothesis).
When we use our abductive reasoning skills, what we infer is not necessarily true or conclusive.
Etymologically, the word ‘abduce,’ comes from the Latin abductus, which means to “lead away, take away.”
Abduction is similar to inductive reasoning, in the regard that they both work with information that is available albeit oftentimes incomplete.
Shortlist: Top Abductive Reasoning Examples
- When I went outside this morning, the grass was completely covered with dew. It must have rained last night.
- The waitress must have noticed I wasn’t enjoying my meal, that’s probably why she offered to get me something else to eat instead.
- These are my favorite jeans and I can’t fit into them anymore. I must have gained weight.
- I heard scratching sounds coming from the ceiling and noticed there were droppings on the floor. I’m pretty sure we have a mice infestation at our house.
- I went on a first date last night, but my date kept checking her phone and didn’t ask me a single question. I guess she wasn’t interested.
- Usually, my partner gets home from work at around 6. It’s now 7 o’clock, so she must be stuck in bad traffic.
Detailed Examples of Abductive Reasoning
1. Dew on Morning Grass
Scenario: “When I went outside this morning, the grass was completely covered with dew. It must have rained last night.”
Here, we can see how the hypothesis put forward, i.e., ‘it must have rained last night,’ is an inference or an incomplete observation. The person making the observation did not in fact witness that it had rained the previous night. Rather, she is inferring or using abductive logic to arrive at the best possible explanation for the given conclusion.
Given that the grass is wet (conclusion) it is probable that it rained last night (hypothesis).
Notice though that there could be some other alternative explanation for the grass being wet; it’s possible, for example, that she forgot that the sprinklers turn on automatically in the morning.
This illustrates how abductive reasoning can sometimes result in an incorrect assumption or explanation as to why something took place.
2. Leftover Food on Your Plate
Scenario: “The waitress must have noticed I wasn’t enjoying my meal, that’s probably why she offered to get me something else to eat instead.”
Most likely, the person that ordered the food wasn’t touching whatever it was that was on their plate since they didn’t enjoy it. The waitress noticed and was able to infer (through abductive reasoning,) that the person wasn’t enjoying their meal, and so acted on that basis.
The waitress was going off what she could see: she observed the person was not touching their food and arrived at the best explanation, being that they must not like what they ordered.
Again, it could be the case that the person was just full, or had a stomachache. However, given the information that was available to the waitress at the time she inferred the person didn’t like their food, this hypothesis presented as being the most plausible or correct explanation under the circumstance.
This sketches out how abductive reasoning works in very commonplace situations.
3. My Jeans Don’t Fit Anymore
Scenario: “These are my favorite jeans and I can’t fit into them anymore. I must have gained weight.”
The observation here is that his jeans don’t fit him anymore. From here, he goes on to pose the hypothesis that he must have therefore put on weight.
Though an incomplete observation, meaning that there could be another reason why the jeans don’t fit (perhaps they shrunk in the laundry, or the person is mistaken about which pair of jeans it is) it is a reasonable inference for him to make that he may have put on weight.
4. A Jury in a Court Trial
Scenario: A jury in a court trial is tasked with listening to each witness’s testimony, along with all the evidence presented by both the prosecutor and the defense to determine whether the accused is guilty or innocent.
Based on the hearings and evidence provided, the jury determines that the accused is guilty of the crime.
People on jury duty are expected to use their judgment and good reason to determine whether the accused is guilty or innocent.
The concern with court trials, in general, is that the evidence offered rarely confirms (beyond a reasonable doubt,) that a crime took place by the accused.
When jurors arrive at a verdict, they are using their abductive reasoning to infer what most likely took place based on the evidence they were given.
5. Getting Your Tonsils Removed
Scenario: I went to the doctor because my throat hurt and was starting to swell. I thought it was just a common cold, but the doctor checked out my throat and told me I needed to have my tonsils removed.
Doctors have to use their abductive reasoning skills all the time to formulate educated hypotheses on a patient’s diagnosis.
Depending on the ailment, it could be extremely easy for a doctor to identify the precondition or underlying cause of the sickness.
Even in cases where the problem appears obvious, doctors still rely on abduction; which is not foolproof, though is most likely the right conclusion, given the situation and the facts available.
6. Mice Infestation at Home
Scenario: While I was reading in bed last night, I started hearing scratching sounds coming from the ceiling. Then, this morning, I noticed there were tiny little droppings on the kitchen floor. I’m pretty sure we have a mice infestation at our house.
This is a case in point in abductive reasoning because while she has not seen any mice around the house herself, she has however realized several observations which likely point to the presence of their being a mice infestation.
Based on the scratching, and the small droppings (which are both solid indications of mice infestation), she suspects that there are mice living at her home.
Therefore, she inferred based on the information that the best possible explanation is that there are mice living in her home.
7. When A First Date Goes South
Scenario: I went on a first date last night with a woman I met online. At first, I thought she may have been interested, but then I realized she kept checking her phone and didn’t ask me a single question about myself. She also seemed in a rush to leave. I guess she just wasn’t feeling it.
This guy may not be the greatest at first dates, but at least he can realize when someone isn’t interested—how did he come to realize that she wasn’t interested?
You guessed it—abductive reasoning.
8. Birdsong in the Morning
Scenario: I woke up this morning to the sounds of birds chirping. It was beautiful, and a lovely way to start the day.
Since she just woke up and was most likely still in bed, we can safely assume that she did not actually see the birds she heard chirping. Rather, she abducted based on the sound of what she took to be birds chirping, that there were actual birds chirping that morning.
This is a reasonable assumption to make, and one that she likely did not have to put much thought into before realizing the source of the sound.
While it’s possible there is an alternative explanation—maybe someone was playing a recording of birds chirping, or is exceptionally talented at imitating the sound of birds; the most likely explanation is that there were birds chirping in the morning.
9. A Fight Between Friends
Scenario: I know that Sam and Jack are close friends, though I heard they got into a big fight and weren’t speaking. I saw them on a walk together the other day. I guess they must have made up.
Clearly, this person is making a conjecture based on the fact that she saw the two together after being aware they’d gotten into a fight. Her hypothesis could easily be wrong: maybe they met to return each other’s things, or for some other unrelated reason.
With that being said, the person who arrived at the conclusion that Sam and Jack had made up did have reason to believe this was the case. People that are not friends do not often go on leisurely walks together, and since they had just been friends, it’s a reasonable assumption for her to make that Sam and Jack made amends.
10. Getting Home Late from Work
Scenario: Usually, my partner gets home from work at around 6. It’s now 7 o’clock, so she must be stuck in bad traffic.
The explanation that has the most explanatory power, so to speak, is that she is late to get home because she must be stuck in traffic.
Though the person cannot conclude this is true until he or she confirms it with their partner, it’s a reasonable and logical assumption to make.
Read Next: Deductive Reasoning Examples
As we have seen, abductive reasoning is an immensely common and heavily relied upon form of logical reasoning that we use all the time to explain our observations and experiences.
Oftentimes, when we resort to our abductive skills, we are hardly aware that we are doing so because it’s done automatically by mental processes that have been ingrained in us since we were young.
Remember that when we use abductive reasoning, most times we are introducing an element of doubt to our story of why something occurred. This doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily wrong, or that abductive reasoning is bound to mislead us.
As discerning philosophical thinkers, it’s good to be cognizant of rules of logic that can be prone to error or arriving at the wrong answer.
Hopefully, through these examples, you can see how abductive reasoning works, and how it benefits us as a form of logic.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.